Ten things I like and don't like, including Golden State and OKC

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Friday, December 29, 2017

It's the final Friday of 2017, so let's roll:

1. Jordan Bell and the Steph-less Warriors

So ... Cash Considerations might be good already -- at least when surrounded by Golden State's elite talent. The Warriors have blitzed opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions with both Bell and Kevin Durant on the floor, and Bell's all-around game has helped the Dubs thrive without Stephen Curry.

Bell brings a speed and switchability on defense no one else in Golden State's misfit crew of centers can approach. He fits on offense as another cagey ball-mover. Trap Durant on the pick-and-roll, and Bell slips into a 4-on-3 -- and (usually) whips the ball to the right place. Watch him eyeball Omri Casspi cutting through the lane, fake a pass there, and wait for the waves to recede -- leaving his real target open in their wake:

When defenses gird for the pass, Bell lays out bait and springs a surprise handoff -- the ol' Nick Collison:

It will be interesting to see how much Steve Kerr trusts Bell in May. Post brutes overpower him, and he is an overeager help defender, sometimes straying too far from dangerous shooters. But he is Golden State's most athletic and talented center.

It has been fun to watch the Warriors shapeshift without Curry. They lose the thing that makes their offense special -- the greatest shooter ever bobbing and weaving around the floor, bending the defense wherever he goes -- but compensate on other end with gigantic, switch-everything lineups. How are you supposed to score against a group of Klay Thompson, Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green?

2. Ghost free throw high-fives

DeMar DeRozan is the new master of this:

Marvel at the level of craft! DeRozan doesn't just high-five random pockets of air. He strides forward, as he would after a normal free throw, looks to his left at one imaginary low-five recipient, and then does the same to his ghost teammate on the right. That is borderline Method.

Joel Embiid is also doing this on technical free throws, and it's awesome. I don't even care if they are mocking the tradition or paying homage to it. It's an easy thing poke fun at, but at least some studies have shown winning teams high-five more. I don't buy the cause-and-effect there, but maybe ritualized high-fiving makes free throw shooters feel comfortable. The whole thing is kind of charming -- a bit of grade-school sportsmanship so ingrained, it persists within a billion-dollar business. No one is too cool for a high-five.

Also, no one will ever beat Andrew Bogut's rapid-fire air high-fives when no teammate offered one. That is the Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" of the genre.

3. Kristaps Porzingis, very tall human

Even in a mini-shooting slump, Porzingis' mere presence helps everyone else on the surprising Knicks. There is such profound, simple power in Porzingis' combination of height, touch, and speed. Most players have to work to generate a 45 percent look after catching the ball at a standstill 18 feet from the rim. Porzingis just has to turn, raise the ball above his head, and shoot.

This is the upside of playing Porzingis mostly at power forward, where he has six inches on most defenders:

Boston designed its entire team to switch two-man actions between wings and bigger forwards. They are fine leaving Semi Ojeleye one-on-one against almost any other opposing power forward. That is Olejeye's main NBA purpose.

The Celtics light those rules on fire against Porzingis, send emergency help, and unlock an easy triple for Courtney Lee. Porzingis is getting more comfortable anticipating help patterns, and passing out of double-teams early -- ahead of rotating defenses.He also draws a ton of fouls when smaller humans whap him on the elbow during jumpers.

Slot bigger centers onto Porzingis to mitigate his size advantage, and he roasts them with drives and pick-and-pop 3s.

Porzingis growing into superstardom is the biggest driver behind New York sustaining around .500 longer than almost anyone -- including this writer -- expected. A motley group of kiddos and well-traveled veterans has contributed behind him.

After a bonanza of home games, a long, road-heavy schedule awaits. The league is curious to see how the Knicks hold up.

4. The TNT crew, ranting

I suspect Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O'Neal using the Wolves-Lakers Christmas game as a vehicle to hammer analytics did not go over well on NBA Twitter.

I didn't mind it. Those guys are entertaining. Between guffaws, they were actually having an interesting chat about the value of playing fast, Tom Thibodeau's minutes management, and the tradeoffs of having your biggest players -- and best rebounders -- shoot so many 3s.

My only wish: that during their lamentations over the (alleged) death of the post-up, one of them would mention how shifting illegal defense rules have made posting up so much harder than it was when they played. At one point, they reminisced about how Houston's championship teams used Hakeem Olajuwon's post game to draw double-teams, and manufacture inside-out 3s -- the "right kind" of 3s, in their view.

That was the perfect jumping-off point for a discussion about how rule changes unlocked better ways to defend the post! Defenses in the 1990s had to trap hard. Illegal defense rules (mostly) prohibited players from lurking in no-man's land to deny entry passes, swipe at the ball, or clutter those inside-out passing lanes Olajuwon exploited. Help defenders can do all of that today.

Every step of executing a post-up is harder now. There are few people alive more qualified than Barkley and O'Neal to discuss that. I wish they would.

5. DeAndre' Bembry, dribbling

The whole dribbling and passing thing is not going well for Bembry.

Bembry has dished 26 assists and barfed away 36 turnovers. He has coughed it up on (gulp) 37.9 percent of the pick-and-rolls he has finished with a shot, drawn foul, or turnover -- the very worst mark in the league.

Bembry is either overestimating the speed and dexterity of his handle, or underestimating the speed and dexterity of NBA athletes. When he slides the ball too far out in front of his chest, presumably to kick-start some sort of evasive maneuver, defenders snatch it. He tries to slither through corridors only the canniest ball handlers navigate unscathed.

Bembry also throws some of the saddest wayward crosscourt lobs you will see in the NBA -- lollipops so soft, multiple defenders have time to debate which of them should steal the ball.

Maybe it doesn't matter. Bembry hasn't even cracked 700 NBA minutes; injuries derailed the start of his second season. Atlanta is in full developmental mode, and Bembry needs NBA reps.

But his early misadventures in ballhandling have surely raised alarms.

6. The Thunder are coming

It took two dozen games (not that long, really), but the Thunder have discovered some fundamental truths about themselves -- mostly that Carmelo Anthony has to be a 3-point-gunning third option. Oklahoma City is 12-3 since Dec. 1, and Melo's stutter-stepping, ball-stopping isolations have dropped from about 7.5 per game before then to 3.5 since, according to Second Spectrum data. His post-ups are down, too.

Anthony is jogging into trail 3s at the rear of Russell Westbrook's manic fast breaks, and he still gets to cook if he gets the ball late in the shot clock. (Note to Melo: any number higher than seven or eight does not constitute "late.")

Westbrook has absorbed most of the load, and he's finishing at the rim with MVP explosion again. A Westbrook spread pick-and-roll barrage, peppered with pindowns for Paul George, was always the road map. It's hard to find much "spread" with both Andre Roberson and Steven Adams on the floor, but Westbrook doesn't need much.

Billy Donovan is smartly mitigating the Roberson effect by having him set more screens for Westbrook -- about seven per game since Dec. 1, up from 4.5 before, per Second Spectrum.

There is so much work left. The Thunder haven't landed on a fifth crunch-time player; right now, it's Roberson by default. Donovan is figuring out how to stagger his three stars. The lineup data on that is mostly discouraging, but still noisy -- and hard to parse -- at this stage. The bench is thin.

Patrick Patterson hasn't looked the same since offseason knee surgery; he has barely played alongside Adams. Jerami Grant has been solid as a backup center, but Raymond Felton is Raymond Felton, and Alex Abrines is fading to the edges of Donovan's rotations. Are they really riding with Josh Huestis when it matters? You know Sam Presti is going to find one more guy around the trade deadline.

Also a problem: Oklahoma City still has only one crunch-time set -- a wing "Hawk" pick-and-roll in which Anthony screens for George before flipping around and screening for Westbrook as George curls around the opposite side. Opponents are, umm, onto that one. Westbrook remains statuesque, hands on knees, whenever someone else has the ball.

This isn't a 60-win juggernaut waiting to bust out. But they could play the rest of the season at a 50-win pace, and be an absolute pain in the ass in the playoffs.

7. Chill, Quincy Acy

I know everyone has to shoot 3s now, but can Acy maybe chill on contested above-the-break triples early in the shot clock?

Acy is heaving more than eight 3s per 36 minutes, and he's down to 32.5 percent after a hot start. Only three players have ever shot so often and so poorly: Michael Adams almost 30 years ago, and both Nick Young and Kobe Bryant in Bryant's carnivalesque final season. Even Antoine Walker is a little ashamed. (Yes, I realize the boom in 3s is going to render a lot of these historic comparisons irrelevant. Can I just have this bit of fun, please? Also, I kinda wish we could erase Bryant's final season from the archives.)

8. Wayne Ellington's green light

Last season, Erik Spoelstra told me he wanted Ellington to jack 10 3s in a game. He might need to pump the limit up to 15, because Ellington already has cracked the 10-triple mark seven times this season. Ellington launches some of the most audacious, high-wire catch-and-shoot bombs in league history. He doesn't care if his defender is almost literally in his hip pocket (if NBA jerseys had pockets):

Ellington squares up in a snap, and pogo-sticks so high -- and so quickly, without a pump fake -- that his line of sight is clear even if a defender is jostling his leg. Ellington has drilled 41 percent of 3s when defenders are within four feet of him, one of the best such marks in the league, per NBA.com.

Ellington is shooting 43 percent from deep on almost 10.5 attempts per 36 minutes. Only six rotation players -- Ray Allen, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Peja Stojakovic, Damon Jones (!) and JJ Redick -- have ever cracked 42 percent on at least six attempts per game with the arc at its current distance. They have hit those benchmarks in 12 seasons combined, and the Splash Brothers account for seven of them. As much attention as the Warriors get, we still may not fully appreciate the degree to which they are an anomaly.

Hell, only four players have ever even tried 10 triples per 36 minutes: Curry (twice), plus James Harden, Eric Gordon and Troy Daniels last season.

The defense has only one remedy: have the guy guarding Ellington's screener lunge at him. The Heat use their centers as screeners for precisely this reason. It puts the onus on opposing behemoths to leave their comfort zone and bum-rush Ellington -- something most of them won't do in a pinch.

The Heat would be in trouble without Ellington. Miami has scored about 107 points per 100 possessions with Ellington on the floor, but just 99 when he sits -- equivalent to Chicago's league-worst offense. (How nuts is it that Chicago is still last in offense after this 10-2 stretch?!)

Ellington has become the player every team that had him before -- Minnesota, Memphis, Cleveland, Brooklyn, and the Lakers -- wished he would be.

9. Denver, haaaaaaaaanging around

The most intriguing part of the league -- the West below the top four -- has morphed into an injury-riddled morass of mediocrity. For some teams, making the playoffs will be a matter of survivalist adaptation, not the end product of some happy growth curve they envisioned.

Credit the Nuggets for scrounging wins amid injuries to Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic, and Emmanuel Mudiay. Mason Plumlee is starting for Millsap, and the Nuggets have outscored opponents by a whopping 14 points per 100 possessions with both Plumlee and Jokic on the floor since Millsap busted his wrist. We tend to reflexively hate double-center looks, but there isn't much difference on offense between Plumlee and Kenneth Faried -- another potential Millsap replacement -- beyond their positional tags; they flit around the same spaces near the rim, and Jokic knows where to find them.

When opponents defend Plumlee with their centers, Jokic bullies smaller dudes on the block.

Jamal Murray has caught fire, and Gary Harris is attacking the rim with a needed, revved-up aggression as the Nuggets scramble for new methods of shot creation; Harris is averaging 14 drives per game since Millsap's injury, up from 8.8 before then, per Second Spectrum.

Trey Lyles is canning 3s, running the occasional pick-and-roll, and even filling time at center in small-ball lineups. Will Barton, de facto backup point guard, always jolts Denver to life. The Nuggets are mashing opponents with all three of Barton, Harris, and Murray on the floor, per NBA.com. Even Wilson Chandler has perked up.

The Nuggets play hard on both ends. Their March schedule is brutal, but they've banked some important short-handed wins -- including against Portland, Golden State, and Utah in succession before Wednesday's heartbreaker in Minnesota. Great work from Mike Malone and his players.

10. BrainyTyus Jones

Tyus Jones is undersized, not a great athlete, perhaps just a so-so shooter, blah, blah, blah. The dude is always doing smart stuff.

Wait an extra half-second to throw that pass, and Corey Brewer arrives in time to disrupt Jamal Crawford's 3. Jones is ready to touch that baby to Crawford before Gorgui Dieng has released his return pass to Jones.

Jones' one-step-ahead brain helps him compensate for some athletic limitations on defense. Jones is averaging 4.6 deflections per 36 minutes, second behind Paul George among all rotation players -- remarkable considering Jones' size. He swipes about 2.5 steals per 36 minutes, one of the best marks in the league. He trails only Spencer Dinwiddie in assist-to-turnover ratio. He's also shooting 40 percent from deep.

The Wolves have been better on both ends with Jones on the floor. (It helps that Jones plays more minutes alongside multiple starters than the typical bench player. Thanks, Thibs!) The starters with Jones in Jeff Teague's place have outperformed the actual starters.

Don't get nuts. Teague is better than Jones. But Jones is solid. With Teague out, the Wolves need Jones to prove he can manage in heavier minutes against opposing starters.

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